Toxic alien takeover: a metaphor for everything

A couple of days ago, I read this article in the New York Times. Written by Russian journalist and science writer, Maria Antonova, it’s about flora called the hogweed. The article is entitled, “A Toxic Alien is Taking Over Russia.”

From the pictures, the plant looks sort of pretty and exotic, doesn’t it? It is oddly tall, though. Indeed, if you blink a couple of times at the pictures, you can get an uneasy sense of something out of a science fiction/horror film. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, comes to my mind.

I don’t like horror films and Invasion of the Body Snatchers may have been the one which killed horror for me. I prefer real life. If I want an externally produced chill, I strap into a roller coaster car.

Well, I still prefer real life but I’m glad I don’t live it in Russia because that’s where the hogweed is proliferating out of control. Unlike kudzu, voracious flora gobbler, the hogweed is vicious to us humans, too: if it touches your skin, your skin will feel as if it’s on fire.

I’ll ask Ms. Antonova to describe it:

Russia is the biggest country on Earth and both the state and the people take pride in the size of its territory — “from the southern seas to the polar fringes,” as the current national anthem goes. That quiet emptiness, the enormousness of Russia, has been infiltrated in recent decades by an alien force: the giant hogweed.

This invader, an exceptionally tall plant with a toxic sap that can cause third-degree burns and blindness, has come to symbolize the fate of rural Russia: malign neglect by the government.

In the summer, the giant hogweed assumes the look of dill on steroids; its coffee-table sized leaves create thickets impossible to pass without a hazmat suit. In the winter, it desiccates into a brown skeleton. Outside Moscow, the hogweeds are often the only visible landmarks over white fields, ominous umbrellas standing in the snow like War of the Worlds troops poised to march.

Here, there, everywhere. Ms. Antonova is right: Russian hogweed is a metaphor for everything.


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